Human trafficking in Africa: An overview of human trafficking trends and networks across the continent

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(Image from ASEC)

In recent times, human trafficking has been intrinsically linked with the sex trade. For many, the concept of human trafficking will conjour images of people – mostly women – either kidnapped or lured into working overseas where they are forced into the sex trade due to lack of money, language and violent coercion. It’s a cliche, but just over a decade ago, the UN estimated that 79% of human trafficking across the world was related to sexual exploitation.

The nature of human trafficking constantly changes, however, and there can be pronounced regiona variations. According to Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) records, around one in five cases involves males, and there has been a marked increase in the number of people being exploited for labour. 

The International Labor Organzation’s 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report estimates that half of al those in conditions of modern slavery are subject to forced labour unrelated to sex work.

Trafficking networks

Traffickers can be found supplying all sectors. This article about trafficking in South Africa highlights cases of women trafficked for sex and forced adoptions, but forced labour is also found in domestic work, agriculture, construction and the fishing industry.

Indeed, it is believed that Southern Africa is a hub for traffickers globallly, and that many organised crime networks use the region’s ports for moving people around. This paper describes some differences between East Africa, where trafficking routes are relatively direct, and Southern Africa, where journies can be more complex. 

Accurately mapping networks and prevalent types of trafficking is difficult however. 

Social media

One strong trend has been the use of social media as a recruiting tool. False job adverts are often disseminated using platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. 

However, as iLab’s Allan Cheboi points out, “Open social media is not used so much any more, traffickers have got wise to the potential for being caught”.

Closed groups and private messages are believed to be flourishing but they can be very hard to penetrate and track for investigators.

As we shall see in a later lesson, social media is also used to spread disinformation about trafficking – it can be a dangerous form of xenophobia when ethnic groups are blamed for trafficking problems. As this report from EUROPOL points out, most trafficking occurs within national and ethnic groups – ie. the traffickers and victims are from similar backgrounds. Indeed, it is suggested that for adults, at least, the decision to migrate is most often a “conscious” one – falling for a duplicitous job advert is more common than being kidnapped into slavery.


Vulnerable populations

Trafficking is also driven by any event which increases the vulnerability of populations. Environmental disasters, for example, can help to create the perfect conditions for trafficking to flourish. The climate emergency is increasing this risk in many regions across Africa.

Covid-19, too, is believed to have had a profound impact on increasing the risk: as people are pushed into economic insecurity, they become more vulnerable to traffickers.

In addition, school closures due to Covid-19 have increased the danger to children in multiple ways – as this article points out, teachers are often best placed to identify children at risk of violence and trafficking, but with the pandemic lockdowns children are spending more time unsupervised online at home where there is an increased risk of grooming.

We will also look at the subject of cultural taboos in this course. Where practices such as kidnappings for ritual killings are concerned, for example, people’s belief systems can be called into question. Vulnerable populations become more vulnerable because no-one wants to talk about issues.

Improving the availability of data

Poor access to data creates a serious obstacle to reporting on human trafficking, but organisations like Code for Africa are working to improve the availability of information for journalists, and foster collaborative reporting across borders. The United States also collects data from governments and collates it in an annual Trafficking in Persons report, which is improving every year (above).

In addition, many multinational companies are signatories of the UN’s Global Compact and commit to ensuring forced labour is not used in their supply chains. They include reporting on the issue in their annual reports. While this is a relatively new development, these could be a useful source of data on the issue as time goes on.

We will look at some of the current sources of data in the next lesson.